TORONTO (CP) -- Taking electronic finger images of everyone in Ontario is no more heavy-handed than requiring photographs on driver's licenses, a senior cabinet minister said yesterday.
Management Board Chairman Dave Johnson defended the fingerprinting proposal as an innocuous tool to combat rampant fraud in health care, medicare, and other provincial services.
But opposition critics pounded the government over the suggestion, first raised by Premier Mike Harris earlier this week.
"I know in the past it has been identified with those who go to jail, but I don't know why that necessarily has to be so", Johnson said.
"If we ever got to the point where it's cost-effective, where it's affordable, and where fraud would be reduced or attacked in a serious way, I think the people of Ontario would say `This is simply another identification system'."
Johnson said fraud in medicare, social assistance, and the Workers Compensation Board runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the public is "fed up" with the situation.
But he admitted it's still unclear whether the cost of a thumbprint imaging system for 11 million Ontarians would be justified by savings from fraud prevention.
The issue arose because of discussions at Metropolitan Toronto council of having local welfare recipients submit to electronic thumb printing.
Under the Toronto proposal, the images would be taken with a device similar to a grocery-store scanner. They'd be stored in such a way that someone breaking into the system wouldn't be able to match the images with people's names.
It would be used to ensure someone doesn't try to apply twice for welfare.
But Liberal Gerry Phillips called the Ontario-wide concept a "draconian" invasion of basic privacy rights.
"For many in Ontario, this is a very chilling thought", he said.
"It smacks of a totalitarian government, the state watching our every move. I think it's unacceptable to the people of Ontario. It is ultimately a bully tactic."
Attorney General Charles Harnick said any such plan would have to comply with the Charter of Rights and provincial privacy laws.
Tom Wright, Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner, said earlier this week that it's doubtful such a measure would save much money.
But it might seriously undermine confidentiality by linking a variety of personal information through a very private form of identification.